Bill Campbell was a man of many homes, who reveled in all of them.
He went from the Monongahela Valley of Pennsylvania to Morningside Heights of New York City to Silicon Valley, and remained the same person – high energy, high expectations.
Campbell, who passed on Monday at 75, intrigued me as a beacon to others, by willing himself to a whole new life, after a term as yet another Columbia University football coach with a losing record.
Instead of catching on as an assistant coach at some other school, he reinvented himself in the growing dot-com world. Not everybody can shift gears at that level, but he proved it can be done.
He became known as “Coach” to some of the biggest companies - Apple, Google, Intuit -- even advising competitors.
I've often said I wished the leadership qualities of some coaches and managers leaders I admired -- Gil Hodges, Al Arbour, Herman Edwards, Dean Smith, Pia Sundhage -- could be grafted into the newspaper business. (Some other coaches were cruel and selfish louts.)
"Billy (as I knew him) was one of a kind: a 165-pound all-Ivy League linebacker and guard, (two-way players in his day), who was the most natural leader I’ve ever met," wrote Jonathan R. Cole, athlete, professor and former provost at Columbia. (From Jamaica High School in Queens, speaking of roots.)
Cole continued: "His type of intelligence can’t be measured in SAT scores or even GPA, but in the power of his personality to lead people anywhere. He was like the original Pied Piper -- his friends would follow him anywhere. His intelligence about people, his irrepressible energy, his warmth, his understanding of people and how to make them feel good about themselves was beyond measure."
He continued: "He was made to lead - and despite the despair he experienced in continually losing as coach of Columbia’s football team, he loved his players and they loved him. He was, indeed, a Shavian life force. Those people come along rarely and now one is gone. I’ll miss him."
I saw Campbell play once and talked to him on the phone once.
In 1961 he was the captain of Columbia’s Ivy League champs, who, in the last game of the season, took a lead before Rutgers rallied to finish its season undefeated.
(I was in the Rutgers stands that day after my brother-in-law borrowed somebody’s photo ID. I believe I was Wesley Wu.)
I talked to Campbell in 2009 when the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame re-named its annual award for a scholar-athlete for Campbell. Over the phone, I felt his gusto for frequent homecomings to New York (he had a favorite pub downtown) and his home town of Homestead, Pa.
Campbell's father had worked in the steel mills to send himself through college – and eventually become superintendent of schools. That faded world is described in the epic book, “Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town,” by William Serrin.
Profiled in the Serrin book is Ray Hornak, a foreman with a conscience, whose son, the Hon. Mark R. Hornak of the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania, was president of the Steel Valley school board in 1987.
“I had the pleasure of introducing Bill as the graduation speaker at our high school,” Judge Hornak recalled Tuesday. “His speech was terrific, but even better was the day that he spent at the high school with group after group of students, talking about achievement, dreams and how to do big things (as each kid would define them.)”
That day, the judge recalled, Campbell and Apple announced a major partnership with the school district, a public/private partnership in something called The Office of the Future.
"It brought 1987 tech to an industrial town high school,” Judge Hornak recalled, “but most of all, it threw the windows open on how our kids could view themselves, their education and their future.” (Campbell also donated money; he didn’t talk much about numbers.)
Campbell also stayed close to his alma mater, eventually becoming the chairman of the Columbia trustees. He carried himself as the avuncular coach-for-life, who encouraged a young athletic trainer, Neila Buday (a good friend of my family.)
“This is tough,” Neila wrote on Tuesday. “Bill was such a special person. I know that phrase is used often but here it truly applies. In my first few years working as an athletic trainer at Columbia, Bill embraced me into the Columbia Football family, both figuratively and literally as friends were always greeted with a big hug and kiss. Years later he embraced my husband Greg into this family as well, and loved the FDNY shirt Greg gave him. It gave him pride to wear it at the gym back west.
“When I left Columbia in 2010 he sent me an e-mail letting me know that I would always be part of that Columbia Family. Despite all his accolades, connections and relationships with the tech industry power players as the ‘Coach of Silicon Valley,’ I don't think anything meant more to him than Columbia football. I have seen him cry after both wins and losses. Both his son (Jimmy) and daughter (Maggie) went to Columbia. He bled Columbia Blue.
“After the Columbia Football Gold Dinner, or other Columbia formal functions, he could be found behind the bar at Old Town, tie undone and Columbia baseball cap on, handing out beer and burgers, always making sure you had a cold one in hand.
"You would never know who he was or how spectacular he as an industry leader. You just saw his charisma and genuineness. I loved watching the friendships he had with his former teammates, the famous 1961 team, and those players he coached. His smile was lit from within when he was around them.
“He will be missed by so many, but Columbia Football lost a true treasure.”
Neila Buday concluded: “Scroll through Facebook and see what all the former players have to say, how much he helped them, how humble he was.”
A wise analysis by Ken Auletta:
The NYT obit:
My 2009 column on the NCAA award:
The Fortune obituary:
A Columbia alumni feature:
Other voices celebrating Bill Campbell:
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.